For those of you, like me, who believed that America’s “Trillion dollar mistake,” the F-35 fighter jet fiasco, was just a money pit plagued by technical deficiencies, now hear this.
In a fierce competition with other military aviation giants, the Swiss government announced it has selected the Joint Strike Fighter to replace their aging F/A-18s.
Yes, the Swiss determined the F-35A — the USAF’s high profile problem child — was the most capable of the three. That part, is no surprise.
What is a shocker — a jaw dropper, in fact — is that they calculated that it would be less expensive to acquire, operate and sustain than even the F/A-18E/F — a jet whose purchase price is US$13.6 million less than Boeing’s baseline F-15EX, according to a detailed analysis by John Venable at Breaking Defense.
That’s right … “less expensive to operate.”
That’s a cost analysis that is definitely going to raise eyebrows at the Pentagon, following the recent decision to procure F-15EX instead of F-35A on costs.
According to The New York Times, the F-35 initiative is the Defense Department’s most expensive weapons program ever, expected to cost taxpayers more than US$1 trillion over its 60-year lifespan.
It’s also the United States military’s most ambitious international partnership, with eight other nations investing in the aircraft’s development.
Its advocates promised that the jet would be a game-changing force — so much was riding on its success that a program cancellation was not an option. And yet for years it seemed as if the F-35 might never make it beyond its development phase.
Dogged by bad news, the controversial program and its reputation have improved over the ensuing years.
Lockheed has now delivered more than 400 planes to American and foreign militaries, and the unit cost per aircraft has dropped significantly.
It recently added Poland to its list of European customers which includes Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Britain.
In the larger picture, some analysts have said the decision to snub both the European fighter jet candidates and surface-to-air missile offering could be seen as a Swiss rebuff to the European Union in a time of strained relations between Bern and Brussels after the collapse of talks over a new agreement governing trade and other matters.
By doubling down on US suppliers the government could also antagonize the 49.8% of voters who opposed funding last year.
Anti-arms campaigners say Switzerland, which last fought a foreign war more than 200 years ago and has no discernable enemies, does not need cutting-edge fighters.
But supporters have said Switzerland needs to be able to protect itself without relying on others.
Could Switzerland, a nation known for financial precision, have made a mistake?
Venable, a 25-year Air Force veteran and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, says the three-year competition involved the UK/German Eurofighter, the French Rafale, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F and Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Joint Strike fighter.
The Swiss Government began Air2030, the competition for its next fighter, in the spring of 2018. The evaluation of the four candidates was methodical, and included a thorough examination of weapons system effectiveness, as well as acquisition and operating costs.
Effectiveness was evaluated through a weighted combination of operational capability (55%), ease of maintenance (25%), cooperation (10%) and direct compensations in the form of investments in the Swiss economy (10%), Venable’s report said.
All four jets went through ground and in-flight tests from May to July 2019, followed by a final request for “best offer” proposals.
At the end of the process, the Swiss Federal Council determined that all four candidates met the Air2030 operational requirements but that the F-35A was an absolute standout, receiving a score of 336 points. The next nearest candidate scored just 241.
The evaluators found the networked systems of the F-35A enabled pilots to have more situational awareness and that the stealth fighter was more survivable in all mission areas.
The F-35A also achieved the highest grades for product support, efficiency of maintenance and potential for collaboration with other countries, Venable’s report said.
The only area in which the Lockheed Martin entry did not top all others was in the lucrative “offsets” sector — meeting the requirement for the submitting corporation to make a direct investment in the Swiss economy of 60% of the order’s total value.
But while the jet’s effectiveness or technological edge was no surprise, the Swiss assessment of costs of the F-35A was nothing short of eye-opening.
They determined that 36 F-35As were US$2.16 billion less expensive to acquire, operate and sustain over the life of the weapons system, Venable’s report said.
That includes Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which costs US$74.1 million per jet — roughly US$4.5 million less than a fully combat capable F-35A — but that is before the Super Hornet is fitted with the equipment to make it combat capable.
The Swiss findings may or may not influence ongoing fighter competitions in Canada and Finland, where each is considering both the F-35A and the F/A-18E/F, but the impact of the Swiss government’s cost assessment absolutely should, at the very least, call into question similar calculations by the US Defense Department.
US Air Force figures for the F-15EX establish the cost of that jet at US$87.7 million a copy — US$13.6M more than the F/A-18E/F.
But those figures are for baseline jets and do not include the additional equipment required to make them combat capable, Venable’s report said.
When you add in the electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite and the targeting pods that enable the F-15EX to fly in combat, its price jumps to US$101.1million, US$22.5 million or 29%more than a combat ready F-35A.
Bafflingly, those acquisition costs were not considered in the Pentagon’s assessment.
Nor were the additional costs required to operate and sustain those sub-systems factored into CAPE’s assessment of the F-15EX’s Cost Per Flying Hour, the main method for determining the long-range sustainment “savings” of the F-15EX over the F-35A.
Did the notoriously precise Swiss made a grave mistake in their calculations?
Or was it the fact that their review was completely independent — unaffected by US politics and internal Defense Department biases.
Either way, the findings from Air2030 should send a chill through Congress, DoD and the US Air Force.
Because if the Swiss are right — and let’s face it, they often are when it comes to money — then the Air Force is about to make a big mistake.
Sources: Breaking Defense, New York Times, Heritage.org, US Department of Defense, CNN World